The humble carpenter (Channing Tatum) in his workshop.
Show Hide image

“Yes, my God is a she”: why Magic Mike XXL is a religious experience

A carpenter who knows it is better to give than to receive? Magic Mike is basically Jesus.

The glistening surface of the Magic Mike franchise seems to glorify hyper-masculinity: posters replete with straining bulges and protruding abs, dominant stances and douchebag hats. The most heavily-trailed scene sees Mike (Channing Tatum) hard at the traditionally masculine career he abandoned stripping for in the first film, dancing as he welds in his garage.

But these concerns are cast aside as soon as Mike reunites with his old entertaining buddies, the “Kings of Tampa”, for a road trip to Myrtle Beach to perform at a stripping convention: their “one last ride”. Once Mike is persuaded to join them, he is forced to leave behind all thoughts of his furniture-making business, as Richie (Joe Manganiello) chucks his work phone from the bus. Mike later responds by gathering up their old stripping outfits, equally symbolic of stereotypically macho pursuits: hurling firefighting and military uniforms onto the street. The trappings of traditional masculinity are quite literally thrown out of the window in the film’s opening minutes. We even learn, on the gang’s first stop, that “Big Dick” Richie (the guy with, surprise surprise, the biggest dick) is the one getting the least sex because women are so intimidated by his size. Magic Mike XXL frames patriarchal ideals of manhood as redundant when it comes to pleasing women, and therefore in satisfying heterosexual men themselves.

Much has been noted about Magic Mike XXL’s attention to the female gaze, which it does beautifully, especially when Richie performs in a service station for a bored cashier: the camera turning from her eyes, to his body, and back again. But, for better or worse, this is a film that devotes even more time mediating on the ways in which attention to the female gaze can be satisfying, liberating, and even redemptive, for the male “object”. 

Richie introduces the road trip to Mike, and the audience, as a spiritual journey: "Tomorrow we start the pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach for the convention!" That the destination of this journey, the site of communion with the divine, is a sweaty Florida convention hall thick with women's bodies, makes women the unequivocal subject of devotion. The male entertainers in Magic Mike don't just serve women in their performances - they deify them. As Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), their MC, calls to the crowd: “Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?"

This extends beyond the stage: attention to female desire is given narrative prominence. Like on any good pilgrimage, the male entertainers are periodically faced with obstacles which their sheer devotion can help them overcome. The key hurdles on the road to Myrtle Beach require the men to charm, pleasure and persuade women in positions of power. They obtain a car from Nancy (Andie McDowell) after spending an evening with her and her friends, exploring their sexual fantasies. Mike impresses host Rome enough for her to step in as MC, and charms Paris (Elizabeth Banks) into giving them a high profile slot at the convention. The men often break off from their journey to try and "make women smile", simply for the joy of it. “All we gotta to do is ask them what they want,” says Andre (Donald Glover), “and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing”. It’s a simple principle that they apply without discrimination to every woman they meet on their journey. Black, white, thin, fat, tall, short, confident, shy: all women are treated simultaneously as equals and individuals. "Yes, my God is a she," Mike says casually.

This is a film that explicitly and repeatedly frames attention to female desire as a near-religious act. But perhaps what makes Magic Mike XXL so radical is that the male entertainers are not demeaned or humiliated by their service to women: they, too, are “exalted” by it. Their pilgrimage finally sees the extent of their devotion reciprocated by a thunderous crowd of screaming women and a shower of dollar bills. Give, and it shall be given unto you. 

Sexual devotion is a mutual, fluid exchange, and, in these scenes, it lifts both the male entertainers and their audience to a higher spiritual status than most mere mortals. “You are all queens,” Rome tells the convention hall crowd. As the famous medieval religious poem, Pearl, tells us: in heaven (or, indeed, South Carolina), all women can simultaneously be Queen, thanks to the mysterious power of divine love. “We’re like healers or something,” says Andre.

So, while it might seem excessive to compare Magic Mike with Jesus... Magic Mike is basically Jesus. He is, after all, a carpenter who lays his tools aside to feed the 5,000-strong crowd of greedy women waiting to get their rocks off at Myrtle Beach, loving each of them indiscriminately, unconditionally. As the XXL poster so playfully suggests, this film is his second coming. The reunited Kings of Tampa even rename themselves “Resurrection”, for Christ’s sake.

It’s true that Magic Mike XXL is a film with its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek. But after decades of cinema that treats men like gods for viewing women as objects, it's heartening to see a film that glorifies men for treating women like gods.

***

Now listen to Anna discussing Magic Mike on the NS pop culture podcast:

 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser